TCS Daily

Faith No More

By Eric Lindholm - December 6, 2002 12:00 AM

Back in April, Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) gave a speech on the Senate floor expressing her views on U.S. energy policies. She opposed development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to boost domestic oil production. After a sympathetic nod to the Alaskan caribou, Sen. Murray suggested that there are better ways to reduce our rising dependence on foreign crude:

"First, we can increase the fuel economy of our automobiles and light trucks."

"A second way to reduce our need for foreign oil is to expand the use of domestically-produced renewable and alternative fuels."

"Third, we can invest in emerging technologies like fuel cells and solar electric cars."

"Fourth, we can also increase the energy efficiency of our office buildings and homes."

That's it. That's her entire plan, to which she proudly concludes: "These four strategies will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and protect one of our nation's most precious treasures." (Not "might" or "could" but will reduce petroleum imports.) But the critical pronoun in her speech is "we" which leads me to ask: who is "we"?

Unless Senator Murray secretly moonlights in a chemistry lab somewhere, all the steps she proposes to curtail oil imports depend upon the ingenuity of American scientists and engineers. Her policies place enormous faith in chemical experts at Dupont, automotive engineers at General Motors, and university researchers across the country. And while this kind of optimism in American expertise is admirable, the hope that these technical experts will yank America out of its energy dependence is just that - hope. An energy policy based on the ethereal and elusive promise of better technologies is, at this time anyway, really no policy at all.

But if Sen. Murray is a Pollyanna on renewable energy technologies, she's a skeptic on national missile defense (NMD) technologies. In July 2000, Murray was one of 31 Democratic Senators who signed a letter urging President Clinton to delay a decision on NMD deployment. The missive seized upon a recent NMD test failure and stated: "As you know, there is growing skepticism within the scientific community about the technical feasibility of the proposed system." In a subsequent interview with ABC, Sen. Tom Daschle claimed "We're for continued research and we're for trying to find ways in which to make it work. But we've got to solve the technical problems because it just isn't working right now. And investing billions of dollars doesn't make sense."

Putting aside the complexity of trying to hit a bullet with a bullet - which the defense community recently did successfully - the positions of Murray, Daschle and others in Washington reveal an inconsistency in their belief in science, one that's colored by their politics. When Alaskan caribou are threatened, there's no limit to what the scientists can achieve; but when they fail to hit a warhead target closing at four miles a second, they're hopeless.

Although Sen. Murray used the word "diversify" like a mantra in her Senate statement, not once did she utter the word "nuclear" which accounts for a significant portion of American energy production. By contrast, she mentions "solar" twice - although solar energy accounted for 0.09% of the total U.S. energy output in 2001. Now imagine that Tom Daschle's pronouncement about missile defense was applied instead to, say, AIDS research: 'we're for continued AIDS research but there isn't a cure yet and investing billions of dollars doesn't make sense'. In the ensuing outrage, Doubting Thomas would surely discover a new faith in science.

Eric Lindholm is a fiber-optics engineer and manager of the Smarter Harper's Index weblog.

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